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"Trashy Labels"

by John M. Hotchner

I recently received an email from a reader, with the subject line as above, that reads in part, “Remember when the American Philatelic Society initiated its black dot [sic] program to identify stamps issued primarily for sale to collectors? They seemed to be especially concerned with the United States bicentennial issues. I don’t know what caused the program’s demise. Perhaps there were so many stamps issued primarily for sale to collectors that the black dot became meaningless. It was a well intentioned program that perhaps became overwhelmed by the avalanche of garbage that the postal authorities threw on the market.”

A bit of history: The APS Black Blot program came about in response to the flood of new issues from newly independent nations, many of which had higher than needed face values and portrayed subjects completely foreign to the new nation — subjects calculated to interest collectors in the developed nations. In other words, stamps were seen by the former colonies of western nations as a cash cow. The APS, and a later similar program by the International Federation of Philately (FIP), were well intentioned efforts to tell collectors what stamp issues and varieties they ought to avoid as being beyond the postal needs of the issuing countries, often overpriced, and issued in small quantities to stimulate the market besides.

The thought was laudable, but the concept carried the seeds of its own destruction; just as earlier efforts like the late 19th century Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps, which editorialized against the U.S. 1898 Trans-Mississippi set (9 stamps with values of 1˘ to $2), urging “collectors to refuse to purchase these stamps, and so assist in preventing the issue of stamps intended mainly for the purpose of sale to collectors and speculators.”

This view was not universally approved. An editorial in the Feb. 15, 1897 issue of The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain said this:

“There is not the slightest doubt that collectors of the issues to, say 1890, look despisingly on the flood of new issues; on the other hand, it is just as true that new collectors cannot possibly hope to obtain at the prices ruling today anything like a complete collection, and perforce must commence on a later date ...

“One of our chief objections to the SSSS is that its actions bring new issues ‘en bloc’ into disrepute, and consequently hurts the feelings of the new collector, who has already sufficient to contend with the high-handed way in which he is looked down upon and treated by his brethren of the old school ...

“We do not say you must collect so-and-so, neither do we advise collectors not to collect so-and-so. Let everyone collect what he pleases if he treats stamp collecting as a hobby. Those, however, who look upon stamp collecting as a moneymaking game are well able to look after themselves. The greatest enemy to philately today, in our humble opinion, is the latter individual; he who simply buys to force up prices and then sells. Such a collector is no more than a philatelic gambler.”
As to the Trans-Mississippis, not only is the $1 “Western Cattle in Storm” recognized as being among the most popular and beautiful of U.S. stamps, but the set, with a total face value of $3.80, has a current catalogue value of $4,275, and was reprinted by the U.S. Postal Service as bicolor stamps in souvenir sheet form in 1998. In other words, the concept of protecting collectors from themselves and from predatory postal services was a dismal failure on several levels.

The SSSS faded away, as did the APS Black Blot program, and the FIP initiative to designate stamps that could not be shown in international exhibits. The last APS black blots were printed in the Society’s magazine in 1982. The program was not cancelled, it just faded away. Why? Because there were disagreements as to what rated a black blot, collectors ignored the blots anyway, and many gave the APS a black blot for trying to dictate what ought to be collectible.

Make no mistake, I do not contend that every stamp issued by every country is equally worthy of respect by collectors. What I contend is that one man’s turkey is another man’s eagle. And it is a vain effort to dictate to people what they should collect. No matter that the effort may spring from pure motives, it is a form of attempted censorship, and that is rightly rejected in the marketplace.

I have no problem with information being provided that informs collectors who want to know, non-judgmentally, that such and such new issue is or is not a good investment based on specific reasoning taking into account such things as popularity of the country of issue, numbers issued compared to in-country demand and use, the popularity of the subject portrayed in the philatelic community, the attractiveness of the stamps, and their cost. But I don’t want to hear recommendations based upon the speaker’s prejudices. Nor do I want to be told that I should not collect something that I find attractive because someone else thinks it is a rip-off.

As I have said many times in this space, one of the glories of this hobby is that we get to shape our collections according to our own lights. Those among us who adopt the role of philatelic snob do the hobby no favor as they push collectors away from it. Nor is it our role as collectors to take up the sword and shield and try and force postal administrations to straighten up and fly right. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it, and tell the world why if you must. But don’t tell me I can’t or shouldn’t. That is my call alone, and I am pleased to tell you that I have a certain amount of what others call trash in my collections, and it adds to my enjoyment of the hobby or it wouldn’t be there.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

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